The three or four other pieces felt overintellectual and pretentious. One reason for their opacity is suggested by the program notes. You'd expect the program notes to an avant-garde show about language to be unusually well-written. But too much of it was blowzy: "While some readers may find Stein's work too personal to contain the communicative meaning they are habitually familiar with, she undoubtedly spurred on the search for a new relation between art and life." What the hell is "communicative meaning"? Maybe this line will help: "The logical extensions of this bias in training [of playwrights, toward everyday people in conventional plots] are the setting of standard audience expectations, a tendency to reduce a play to a two-sentence description of what it is 'about,' and a limited critical approach which favors plot summary and dispenses with philosophy."

This just isn't true. Standard playwrights, along with standard critics, put story in the foreground and philosophy -- if they have any -- in the background, because that's where philosophy belongs. Even bad writers have a vague idea that "communicative meaning" isn't all that matters; but writing directly about philosophical things can range from hopeless to pompous. That's why we tell stories; that's why there's structure in writing and critics who make sense of it. The best stories do the same work as the most important abstract words ("self," "will," "love") -- they point beyond the limits of their letters toward something unnameable and mysterious. The worst parts of New Word Order were still working up to these ideas in the most dogmatic way. Conceptually, it wasn't even as advanced as mainstream writers like David Mamet or Woody Allen; and maybe the worst criticism you can lob at an avant-garde performance is that it failed to show you anything new.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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